April 4, 2023

As a part of the OCA National APA Heritage Month Children’s Book Tour, the Organization of Chinese Americans is featuring interviews with participating authors on their experience as an APA children’s book author. This week, OCA is featuring Icy Smith, author of Mai Ling in China City.

Icy Smith is an award-winning author and the founder of East West Discovery Press, which specializes in publishing and distributing multicultural and bilingual books in more than 50 different languages.

Her acclaimed book, The Lonely Queue: The forgotten history of the courageous Chinese Americans in Los Angeles, was described by the Los Angeles Times as “a bilingual book that celebrates the Chinese American community of Southern California… with the intimacy of a family album and the authority of a historical monograph.” The Lonely Queue won the 2002 Clarion Award for best nonfiction book.

Smith’s first children’s book Mei Ling in China City was named the winners of the 2009 Chinese American Librarian Association Best Children’s Book Award, 2008 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award and 2008 Independent Publisher Award.

Her recent publication is the Half Spoon of Rice which presents a child’s account of life in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime in the mid-1970s. The book was named the winners of the 2010 Skipping Stones Honor Awards and 2009 Moonbeam Children’s Book Award, and a finalist of the 2010 Benjamin Franklin Awards in the Multicultural Children’s Book category.

The APAHM Children’s Book Tour is made possible through a partnership between OCA, Nordstrom and designer Phillip Lim. Nordstrom has collaborated with Phillip Lim on a limited-edition T-shirt, which will be sold exclusively at 16 Nordstrom stores and online for the month of May. Buy a tee and support OCA’s Youth Programs!

OCA: Who or what inspired you to write your first book?

Icy Smith: About 15 years ago, I was doing some research on the history of Chinese Americans in Southern California, for a local community group. I came to find out that this topic had been neglected. There had been some material on the subject. However a complete work on the history of Chinese Americans in the Southland was not available. In a short time, I became fascinated with the subject matter, and something fantastic happened. I got to know many people who lived part of the history themselves. As a result of talking to many seniors and a lot of research, I decided to write a book about the 150 years of Chinese Americans in Los Angeles. My first book The Lonely Queue was published 10 years ago.

OCA: Are the characters/plot based on your own experiences? If so, how much?

Smith: Interviewing people who had lived through much of the history was a real pleasure. I made many wonderful friends who had compelling stories to tell about their lives. One of those was Mei Ling. That led to my second book, a children’s story based in Los Angeles.

Mei Ling in China City is based on a true story of friendship between a Chinese American girl Mei Ling and her best friend, Japanese American girl Yayeko during World War II. In 1942, Yayeko and her family were taken away to live in a war relocation camp by the U.S. government. So these two girls were sadly separated. However, they were able to write letters and always imagined they would see each other again when the war was over.

Mei Ling and Yayeko wrote letters to each other during the war years, and their relationship endured through this tragic part of American history. Mei Ling in China City reveals both some of the fascinating history of China City and the dark history of the Japanese American internment. The lives of many Chinese and Japanese Americans during WWII resonate in the friendship of Mei Ling and Yayeko.

OCA: Where did you grow up and has that influenced your writing?

Smith: I grew up in a very poor and an entirely dysfunctional family in Hong Kong. Since I was a young child, I worked many odd jobs to support my family. One of those was as a janitor in a small library. I enjoyed being around books while I worked and remembered dreaming about writing and maybe being an investigative journalist, probably that, because I witnessed a lot of injustice in the community I lived. My family lived in an extremely small flat near loan sharks, gambling gangsters, etc.

I made my way to the U.S., and ended up studying journalism having a real passion for writing. I did not end up going into the field directly, but I started my first book about 15 years ago.

OCA: How does being an Asian Pacific American (APA) affect your writing style?

Smith: Since I grew up in near abject poverty in an Asian country, I know what it is like to have lived with very little. But I am proud to have the experiences I had and appreciate what I have now. Being an Asian American, I was able to relate to the experiences of the interviewees in my previous book projects so that I can authentically portray their stories and histories.

OCA: What challenges do you face when writing your books?

Smith: Maybe the biggest challenge is just finding the time. It is very difficult to juggle my own writing with my more than full-time work at East West Discovery Press. With my latest book, it was not easy to write on such a tragic subject, that of the Cambodian genocide, especially for kids. Genocide may not seem like a children friendly topic. But even tragic stories can be compelling to children if the book is written in a child appropriate manner.

OCA: Can you share any projects in the works with us?

Smith: Half Spoon of Rice is my latest children’s book with the major character Nat, a nine-year-old boy. He barely survived the four years of horror of the Cambodian genocide. The book features illustrations and historical photographs documenting Cambodian history from 1975 to 1979.

OCA: What do you like to do in your free time outside of writing?

Smith: Actually I enjoy writing a lot. While spending time with my supportive family maybe on a long road trip, I can’t be happier.

OCA: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Smith: In Mei Ling in China City, Mei Ling and Yayeko were remarkably reunited after 66 years of separation, as a result of the book’s publication in 2008. A reader and docent at the Japanese American National Museum helped in reconnecting these two ladies who are now in their early eighties. Both live in Los Angeles and have picked up their friendship again, right where it left off.

Today 31 years after the end of the Cambodian genocide, little is taught in schools around the world. I hope that through Half Spoon of Rice, young people can learn the lessons of genocide history and become advocates for global peace and understanding.

My goal is to write a series of historical fictions with an emphasis on Asian American history and culture for kids.

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